Putin’s victory is all but guaranteed. But if elected with slumping numbers then his vision—and personal security—will be at risk once he steps asideby Maria Antonova / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Descend into the Moscow metro these days and you will hear a new sound cutting through the familiar din of commuters chattering and trains humming through tunnels. The announcement over the speaker reminds the subway’s millions of daily users that 18th March is an important date: the election of the Russian president. Stickers inside the train cars tell out-of-towners that the opportunity to vote in the capital is just a click away on a government services website: an unprecedented move to grant suffrage to those without previously required registration.
Russian authorities really want people to go to the polls on Sunday.
Six years ago, the last time Russia chose a president, the authorities were worried that people were a little too excited about the election. Crowds of people had protested in unprecedented rallies that demanded reform and rejected Vladimir Putin’s standing. A possibility of change was on the minds of many active Russians who networked online, debated alternate visions for Russia’s future, and eventually cast their ballots. The country was abuzz with new political activity.
Since then, many of those individuals have left the country, and both online and offline political expression has been severely restricted with new legislation. Prospects of going to jail for re-posting a critical social networking message have dampened activism. Economic stagnation has turned the focus of ordinary people on earning enough to survive.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 provided an unprecedented boost for Putin, with his approval ratings rising to 86 percent—a level of popularity that was christened the “Crimea majority.” The election is being held on the four-year anniversary of the annexation to remind people of that main legacy of Putin’s last six years in office, but the magic of the Crimea majority is not likely to be recreated.
The country’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, has called for a boycott of the election, but even without his call, projected participation in the polls is lower than ever in modern Russian history. The latest parliamentary polls in September 2016 showed that political apathy is at an all-time high: less than 48 percent of Russians bothered to vote. In Moscow the figure was just 35.2 percent.
Putin’s victory is all but guaranteed despite his complete disengagement from the campaign. In his customary fashion he opted out of debates and has been portrayed in the media as tending to state needs while other candidates were locked in televised shouting matches: in one unsavoury moment, candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky called opponent Kseniya Sobchak a “whore” and she doused him with water in response.
Internationally, Putin has projected the image of a man with his thumb over the nuclear button who is ready to annihilate his enemies. “What good is the world without Russia in it?” he said in a recent interview, explaining the rationale behind nuclear retaliation to an attack. The British government has described the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal as part of a “pattern of reckless behaviour” by Putin, but domestically, the escalating international scandal is painted as yet another sign the world is hostile toward the country and its people.
In the absence of a clear political or economic programme in his election campaign, Putin’s message to Russians is this: the west wants to undermine us, but it will fail as long as I’m in office.
In the Soviet era, special agitators went door to door to remind citizens of their duty to vote in polls with just one candidate. Snack stands with scarce food items at the polling stations helped ensure turnout. Afterwards, Soviet papers boasted of the people’s massive support for the party line, contrasting it to spotty voter participation in capitalist countries.
The frantic drive to raise turnout in the current election—which has included offers of free film viewings, provocative ads on social networks and sweepstakes with prizes for participants—has shown that authorities want a de-facto referendum of resounding support for Putin in the face of threats against Russia, rather than a dull multiple choice for a country sinking into apathy.
“Vladimir Putin is holding the backbone of the country,” wrote Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a political powerhouse and Putin’s former chief of staff, in his unusually emotional message calling on residents to provide a Soviet-style endorsement of Putin to show their patriotism. Attempting to conjure the dormant Crimea majority, the mayor even cautioned people who are apathetic or lazy that they will be labelled protesters who “question that Crimea is Russian” if they stay home on Sunday.
In the next six years in office, depending on oil prices, Putin may see Russia’s rainy-day fund, the National Wealth fund, run out. Moscow will continue to seep resources on the conflict in Syria and on aid to separatist regions in eastern Ukraine where fighting is ongoing. Difficult economic decisions will need to be made to balance the budget without further devastating people’s quality of life.
Popular support has been the bulwark of Putin’s legitimacy, both at home and abroad, throughout his reign, and if he is elected with slumping numbers, that legitimacy would be seen as eroding, just like his aging macho image. Putin is constitutionally barred from running again in 2024. A mandate rooted in an unquestionable majority would make it easier to create a way to defy this impediment if he is so inclined (publically, Putin has denied such intentions). It would also help him find a successor willing to ensure his personal security and continue his vision. Otherwise six years could be just enough time to turn a czar into a sitting duck.